In 1984, the year after her Women’s American Basketball Association championship victory with the Dallas Diamonds, Nancy Lieberman was a reigning champion in a league that folded almost as quickly as it started. In the midst of deliberating her next plan of action to continue playing basketball, Lieberman received word that David Stern, then NBA commissioner, wanted her to come to New York to speak with him. Little did she know she’d be involved in the beginning conversations of an idea that led to the most innovative and progressive women’s league in history.
“I was really nervous,” Lieberman says. “I was sitting in [Stern’s] office, and he closed the door. I was 24, 25 years old. I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ And he says, ‘Well, they’ll fire me if they hear this.’ He sat down and he goes, ‘Nancy, before I’m done being the commissioner of the NBA, there’s going to be a WNBA.’ I just looked at him and went, ‘What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘It’s gonna take time, but I’m telling you, there will be a WNBA, and my greatest hope is that you will play in it.’ ”
Twelve years later, the widespread chatter about the 1996 U.S. women’s basketball superteam, composed of heavy-hitting players like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Ruthie Bolton and Dawn Staley, created excitement around women’s sports. Team USA brought home the gold in the ’96 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. “We can go back to ’96 and feel what women were doing at that time,” says Staley, a Hall of Fame player and coach. “It was all because they invested in those teams and they invested in women and they saw that when you do that, you're golden.” And golden they were.
On April 14, 1996, following an approval from the NBA board of governors, Stern sat alongside Val Ackerman in the public’s official introduction to the newest women’s basketball league, the Women’s National Basketball Association.
The original eight teams in the league: Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz. The initial player allocation took place on Jan. 22 and provided teams with two players, each, with the intention of keeping players close to their collegiate market.
After the first 16 players were allotted, the elite draft followed on Feb. 27, 1997, which featured players who already had experience at the professional levels. “They sent Renee Brown over[seas] to scout players … and they picked a handful of us to be in the elite draft.” It was at the elite draft that Stern’s greatest hope from ’84 came true. Lieberman was chosen by the Phoenix Mercury. “I told Renee Brown and Val Ackerman, ‘I will go to any local tryout you want,’ ” Lieberman said. “I will go anywhere to show you that I can play.” She was picked 15th in the second round. Four rounds of the collegiate WNBA draft, similar to today’s drafts, followed on April 28.
On June 21, 1997, 14,284 people gathered in Inglewood at the Forum for the highly anticipated tip-off. The excitement was there. The energy was infectious. The players were ready. “It was like an emotional roller coaster. One minute, we were pumped and the next minute, we were like, ‘Oh, my God, the whole world is going to be watching this. It’s gonna be on CBS!’ We were all over the place,” Kym Hampton says. With 19:01 on the clock, Sparks guard Penny Toler scored the first basket of the league.
Though the WNBA was new and exciting, a rival league existed. The American Basketball League commenced in ’96 and housed several elite players as well. “The ABL was the one that got it started and played on the traditional basketball season timeline,” says Staley, who played two seasons there. “I thought it was cool that so many women had an opportunity to play professional women’s basketball here in the States.” Staley cites the longer season of the ABL being better on her body as the reason she opted for it over the WNBA.
Ticha Penicheiro, former WNBA assist record-holder and one of the WNBA’s top 15 players of all time, however, made the decision to play for the new league. “I remember the ABL threw all this money at me. And I was like, ‘No, I want to be a part of the WNBA.’ Just the name itself [was special],” she says. The ABL folded within two years of its inception, and the WNBA’s presence as the premier professional basketball league in the United States remains uncontested.
Twenty-five years later, the WNBA has grown into the longest-standing women’s sports league. Twenty-five years of inclusion. Twenty-five years of excellence on and off the court—a constantly evolving style of play and increasing audacity in activism. Twenty-five years of reflection and hope and progression. Twenty-five years of cultural innovation. Twenty-five years of the most competitive basketball in the world.
The WNBA’s upward trajectory is promising for the next 25 years, but the league has had plenty of significant moments in the first 25. Here’s a look at some of the most memorable moments, inspirational legends and notable actions of the league so far.
We Got Next
The WNBA has experimented with several campaigns to market players, and the first, “We Got Next,” was a memorable representation of boldness and undeniable presence. The campaign launched in ’96, leading up to the inaugural season. It featured Olympians Leslie, Swoopes and Lobo walking fiercely through a tunnel and into the light. They didn’t smile. They foreshadowed the strong women who made up the longest-standing women’s league in U.S. history.
“Every NBA game, I swear, they probably played that commercial about 15 times,” Hampton says. “In the beginning, the league was flooding a ton of money into it. I think that was one of the reasons that it was so successful. It was a novelty. Everybody was jumping on board. People bought into it.”
Visibility played a major role in the early success of the WNBA. Hampton recalled the league featuring marquee players and the commercials featuring Kyla Pratt.
Whitney Houston’s national anthem
The inaugural WNBA All-Star Game was held in ’99. “We were in New York at Madison Square Garden, and Whitney Houston sang the national anthem. I mean, it can’t get any better than that,” says Penicheiro, a ’99 Western Conference All-Star (she finished her career with four WNBA All-Star nods). In a red Adidas jumpsuit, Houston approached center court with the All-Stars in her peripheral and a small group of ball kids closely surrounding her. She blew kisses to the fans in the audience. Penicheiro recalls Houston’s performance as one of the top memories of her career.
“That was a very special moment for the league and all of us individually … —who wasn’t a Whitney Houston fan?—and then to play at the Mecca of basketball, and to have her sing the national anthem there was amazing.”
On April 8, Nike released what the company referred to as “the most comprehensive WNBA apparel system ever.” The collection features three iterations of team jerseys to be worn by the players in the 25th-anniversary season: the Heroine, the Explorer and the Rebel. Nike has notably shrunken advertisements on the jerseys, and numbers are on both the front and back. The Rebel collection, which depicts themes of female empowerment, has drawn much excitement and feedback, especially on social media. “Nike really stepped up, and the uniforms are really fire,” Penicheiro says.
The orange hoodie was another win for the WNBA. It rose to fame in ’20 and became the best-selling merchandise of league history. It also won Sports Business Journal’s “Best Fashion Statement” of that year. The orange hoodie transcended genders and leagues. The late Kobe Bryant was seen sporting the hoodie courtside, alongside his daughter Gianna, as they frequented games. Other NBA players began wearing the orange hoodie to their respective arenas. Lil Wayne was also spotted in the award-winning staple.
The culture of the WNBA was also shaped by the players within the league. In addition to the excellent athletes who have graced the courts within the last two and a half decades, there are several who left the game overall better than when they entered.
Houston Comets’ big three
The Comets are the most decorated defunct WNBA team. Though the team itself no longer exists, the players who contributed to the dynasty will forever remain legends of the game. Averaging almost 12,000 fans over their four years of dominance, the Compaq Center was the hub of elite women’s basketball. Winning WNBA championship titles in ’97, ’98, ’99 and ’00, the Comets were modern-day superheroes with Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Cynthia Cooper leading the charge. The larger-than-life Big Three gave so much to the game of basketball. Cooper, a 2009 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, signed with Houston at age 34. She was the WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player in all four of the Comets’ titles. She holds the record for most Finals MVPs. Thompson was the first pick in the inaugural WNBA collegiate draft. She went on to become a nine-time All-Star and earned two Olympic gold medals in addition to her four championships with Houston.
Everybody wanted to be like Swoopes. She was the first player signed to the WNBA. Swoopes is a three-time WNBA MVP, three-time Olympic gold medalist and a 2017 Hall of Fame inductee. With Air Swoopes, she made history by becoming the first women’s basketball player to have a shoe named after her. She was a champion, a changemaker and a prominent cultural influencer.
Lauren Jackson: Aussie to America
A 2019 inductee into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame and a 2020 inductee into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Jackson not only set the example for positionless basketball but also proved international talent existed in abundance. The Storm standout, two-time WNBA champion and three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player gave Australians a new wave of hope following Michele Timms. “From an Australian perspective, I mean, we get a special player once every so often,” fellow Aussie Tully Bevilaqua says. “Lauren really took Australia to the next level.”
Players like Candace Parker often acknowledge Jackson as an inspiration for their style of play. Jackson’s versatility blurred the lines of traditional basketball. She was a big who also had a consistent outside game. “I feel like the game really changed when Lauren Jackson entered the league in 2001.” Bevilaqua says. “She had that physical, natural ability to play both outside and inside, at a high level, and at a very consistent level.” Jackson’s playing style is reflective of the direction the game is going in now.
Skylar Diggins-Smith: shaping social media and personal branding
Diggins-Smith brought the power of personal branding into the league. Over the years, she has amassed an Instagram following of more than one million. Diggins-Smith also has over a half million followers on Twitter. In the inaugural season, players were promoted to the public heavily, but over time, the player likeness and forward-facing brand initiatives faded. “I think with any start-up business, the novelty wears off at some point and then you have to get creative. People want more. We have to find a wave and ride it.” Staley says. Diggins-Smith created her own wave, and her brand was so strong coming out of college that people followed suit.
Notre Dame games were packed in ’12 with celebrities like Lil Wayne in attendance. Diggins-Smith carried her cultural notoriety to the league. The top three draft picks of ’13, Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Diggins-Smith, were unrivaled in individual brand popularity at the time. Diggins-Smith made history as the first woman to sign with Roc Nation Sports, and Jay-Z visited Liberty games in Newark. We now see a new generation of players unafraid to show their personalities, model their looks and latest fashions and really push their brand forward.
Cappie Pondexter: pioneering fashion
Fashion and owning individuality in the WNBA cannot be discussed without including Pondexter. She is a two-time WNBA champion and seven-time All-Star. Pondexter audaciously presented herself exactly how she wanted. The Dream’s Courtney Williams refers to Pondexter as her “all-time GOAT” for this reason. “She’s my size. She got tattoos. Everybody wanna see somebody that looks like them doing what they do and she did it at a high level and did it well.” Williams said. ”Imma stay true to me. Imma do what I do. Imma talk how I talk. Imma date who I wanna date. Imma club when I wanna club. Just know that you gon’ have to put respect on my name when I touch that court. For me to be able to do that, act the way I act, talk the way I talk, dress the way I dress … Cappie paved the way for that.”
Pondexter spent much of her career in New York playing for the Liberty and was always in the mix of fashion events and event life. She had an array of showstopping outfits she’d sport on game day. She set the standard for game-day fits and tunnel walks before they were popularized.
Rebekkah Brunson: five-time champion
“I was able to play with some amazing players in Sacramento. Yolanda Griffith. Rebekkah Brunson. Actually, I don’t think Rebekkah gets enough credit. She's the only player that has five rings.” —Ticha Penicheiro
Rebekkah Brunson’s five WNBA championships are more than any player in league history. Drafted in ’04 by the Sacramento Monarchs, Brunson won her first championship in ’05. “It was really about being able to get our vets the championship because I’m playing with Yo [Yolanda Griffith], and she hadn’t won yet,” Brunson says. “She’d probably been dreaming about this for a while. So to be able to help her reach that goal, I think made that a very special situation.” Only two years into her career, Brunson got a taste of winning it all and wanted more.
Coming from a mid-major, Georgetown, Brunson knew what it was like to lose and no longer wanted to have that feeling. “I was like, ‘I like this,’ I want to do whatever it takes to be able to continue to feel this way and to continue to be successful.” Her success continued after the Monarchs ended. Brunson’s team-first mentality transpired through the years. She shared the floor with Sylvia Fowles, Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore, while being coached under Cheryl Reeve; she now coaches alongside her.
As for herself, Brunson says, “A lot of people focus on, ‘I want to be able to score. … I want to be able to shoot three-ball. I want to be the biggest name. I want people to talk about me.’ And I’ve never been that way. I just wanted to compete. So whatever that looked like, if that meant get on the floor, being in the post, boxing out, hustling, being aggressive, doing those things, then that’s what I was fine with doing.” She did the little things. In addition to her performance, Reeve, Brunson says, pulled the best out of her. Their conversations were “less about what she wanted me to do and more about who I wanted to be.” Brunson wanted to compete. Brunson wanted to preserve that championship feeling. And she did. Five times.
“You never know when your number is going to be called. Expect the unexpected and when the ball is in your hand, you better make that shot. You got to knock it down.” —Shey Peddy, 2019 WNBA champion
T-Spoon’s “The Shot”
True fans of the WNBA have Teresa (T-Spoon) Weatherspoon’s shot ingrained in their memory. In 1999 the Comets were competing for their third straight title. Game 2 of the series against New York, however, was a brilliant moment of taking down the beast.
On September 4, in Houston, the Comets had the chance to secure their third ring; the WNBA Finals were a three-game series at the time. Yet, T-Spoon and the Liberty had other plans. There were 2.4 seconds remaining. T-Spoon had the ball with opponent Thompson on her left shoulder. There was no time to get the ball properly down the court, so from behind half court, T-Spoon, using her strong arm, heaved the ball into the air and “immediately knew” it was going in. “Soon as it left my hand, it looked as if it was good,” she told the live broadcast. The final score of the night was 68–67, Liberty. Though the confetti was prepped, the Comets had to hold off celebrating until the next game—which they did win.
The Hamby Heave
An extension of expecting the unexpected was the Hamby Heave. The shot by Aces veteran Dearica Hamby was the icing on the cake of possibly the most chaotic play in recent WNBA history. Las Vegas hosted the Sky in a single-game playoff elimination. With 10 seconds left, Courtney Vandersloot (Sky) got the ball in the backcourt. Vegas’s intention was to foul immediately, and Kelsey Plum tried to foul Vandersloot before she got away. Under pressure, Vanderloot threw a risky pass intended for Diamond DeShields, and Hamby intercepted it and gained possession with 8.6 seconds left. Thinking the time on the clock was much lower, Hamby caught the ball, took two steps and chucked it up, despite her teammate Sydney Colson being wide open under the basket. It worked out in Hamby and the Aces’ favor, though. Las Vegas defeated Chicago 93–92 and moved on to the next round of playoffs.
Nneka Ogwumike’s buzzer beater
In the ’10s, another WNBA dynasty emerged. The Lynx sat atop the standings and were establishing themselves as one of the best programs in the tenure of the WNBA, winning the championship in ’11, ’13 and ’15 (and later, ’17). A rivalry between the Lynx and the Sparks developed over the years.
Oct. 20, 2016. Game 5. The Sparks returned to the Lynx’ home court, the sold-out Target Center, in a do-or-die situation. There were 19.7 seconds left on the clock, and Minnesota was down by a single point. Whalen of the Lynx got the ball to her teammate Moore. Moore crossed up Sparks’ Alana Beard, the Defensive Player of the Year, which resulted in Beard’s hitting the floor. She then executed a turnaround jumper and sank the shot. Nothing but net. This play would’ve absolutely gone down as one of the greatest of all time, if the following play had not happened.
Neither team had a timeout at this point. There were 15 seconds left on the clock. The Sparks’ Chelsea Gray took the ball down the court, attempting to take the shot as soon as possible. The shot was a miss, but Ogwumike perfectly positioned herself under the basket for the rebound. Ogwumike attempted to shoot the ball, but it was immediately blocked by Lynx’ Fowles. Following the ball, Ogwumike got another rebound and gave a second attempt, fading away from the basket, and, this time, the ball went in. Minnesota had no timeouts left but had three seconds to try to make something happen. Whalen threw up a heave, and it was no good. Los Angeles secured the ’16 championship against the mighty Minnesota.
Lisa Leslie and WNBA dunks
Leslie was one of the marquee players at the start of the league. Coming off the ’96 Olympic team and being the face of the Sparks franchise, Leslie already garnered a great deal of attention. She was known for her tall stature, and people were well aware of her ability to dunk. The league tipped off in ’97, but it wasn’t until ’02 that fans got to witness the historic dunk by the superstar. It was worth the wait. Leslie capitalized on a wide-open fast break and delivered a one-handed dunk against the Miami Sol.
Six years later, Candace Parker entered the league. She was an NCAA national champion, but before her collegiate career, she won the McDonald’s All-American Dunk Contest. Her dunking abilities carried into the league. In ’08, Parker dunked the ball in-game, in an almost identical way as Leslie’s. Leslie was a sideline witness. Since then, players like Griner have come along and given the fans dunks. The next generation of players have the height and athleticism to deliver the same above-the-rim play. Though, it should be noted that dunking is an additive, not an essential part, of the women’s game. Former WNBA coach and general manager Pokey Chatman encourages people to appreciate the dunks that have happened, but “get away from the need to dunk to get to how they study the game.”
Ticha Penicheiro, Sue Bird: dime dominance
Assists are synonymous with Penicheiro. It wasn’t just the quantity of the dimes; it was the quality. Penicheiro was crafty and found her teammates in the most flashy ways. “Being a ‘dime’ person, somebody that likes to assist, I never did it by myself,” she says. Penicheiro’s selflessness with the ball, much like her teammate Brunson’s, contributed to the Monarchs’ ’05 title. Penicheiro’s 2,599 recorded assists are second in history to only Bird’s. Bird, a four-time WNBA champion, has 2,888 assists. One of the most memorable assists was her over-the-head pass to Natasha Howard in ’17. The Storm had the advantage over the Sun. The last thing a Seattle opponent wants to see is Bird coming down the court, full speed with the ball. She faked out the defense by going left, as Howard was still leaking toward the basket, and fully turned her body away from the basket and blindly delivered a seamless pass to Howard in the paint. No one was prepared for Bird to make the eyes-in-the-back-of-her-head assist, but it happened. And it was great.
Shey Peddy’s game winner
The game-winning shot is aspirational, and there have been quite a few in the WNBA, especially for big-name players. But Peddy showed up in ’20 and made history.
“Coach [Sandy] Brondello drew up a play. Skylar was the first option. The second option was hitting DT [Diana Taurasi] on the flare screen coming back to the ball. And that was it. So I just ran to the corner and let them have their space. [Skylar Diggins-Smith] drew the double team. And went to go pass it and I’m looking like, ‘Diana’s over there. Where are you throwing this ball?’ And she threw it to me. I was like, ‘Shey, DO NOT mess this up. Once I caught it, like my mind just went blank. I pump-faked, [Leilani Mitchell] went by and I just shot in and went in. I think the first thing I did was turn to Diana like, ‘Did that shot just really go in?’ I saw her reaction just running at me. And everybody was jumping on me.” —Shey Peddy
Peddy’s shot to send the Mercury into the second round of playoffs was a testament to perseverance and believing in yourself.
Peddy graduated from a mid-major college, Temple, and went through a series of training camps that didn’t work to her advantage. “I used to be so embarrassed about my situation,” she says. However, seven years later, in ’19, Peddy was asked to join the Mystics for the latter part of the season, which led to her securing a WNBA championship. “I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. I made it out of the projects. I made it out of difficult situations and still I’m here. I get to call myself a WNBA champion.”
The back and forth continued with Washington in ’20. After being left off the initial roster, she joined them after player opt-outs, just before being cut yet again. “I was released and then [coach Mike Thibault] was like, ‘Hopefully, somebody will pick you up in here,’ ” Peddy says of her last departure from the Mystics. They offered Peddy another chance days later due to team health, but Phoenix saw potential in her as well. “Even if I don’t work with Phoenix … [I felt like] it was a brand-new start, a new team. … The worst has already happened. I had already been cut, so I can’t lose anything. And I’m so glad I chose Phoenix,” says Peddy.
Peddy’s buzzer beater came over her former team, the one with whom she had won a championship in ’19, the one who released her days before. Her shot echoed around the world because it was a testament to perseverance. It is an ode to every single piece of the team being important.
“Out front and behind the scenes, we need people with voices to combat racial and gender inequalities. We want to promote advocacy for the LGBTQ community and for rights. There has to be reformed systems in place where there’s injustice. And we have seen that athletes do have a voice, and they don’t want to be silenced.” —Nancy Leiberman
The year 2020 heightened the impact of player voices, particularly those in the WNBA. Year after year, the WNBA leads talks and movements surrounding social justice, racial equality, self-advocacy, political aptitude and the rights of the marginalized. As vice president of the WNBA Players Association Chiney Ogwumike always says, “We’re not new to this. We’re true to this.”
Lynx and 2016 activism
Four years before, players boldly took a stance in the face of the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (these occurred one year after the death of Sandra Bland). Several teams organized to raise attention to their intolerance of police brutality that frequented the news cycle. In a time when it was far from popular to speak out against these injustices, the Lynx decided to protest during a press conference. At the peak of their organization’s dominance, Whalen, Moore, Brunson and Seimone Augustus stood in solidarity in front of the press backdrop, sporting shirts saying “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability” on the front and “Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Black lives matter.” on the back. “We took a stance and wanted to have a press conference,” Brunson says. “I think that was so key because, if you look at what was happening in 2016, everybody wasn't doing it.”
“2016 was probably the first time that you saw an entire team protest,” Brunson says. The four off-duty Minneapolis officers assigned to work the Lynx game immediately walked offsite after witnessing the press conference, and the president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, Lieutenant Bob Kroll, commended them for their exit. “It was so crazy, because what they did was exactly what we were standing up against,” Brunson says. “You can’t pick and choose who you’re going to keep safe.”
Outside of the risk of losing security protection, players initially faced $1,500 fines for not being in uniform during warmups if they chose to protest with attire on the court. Tina Charles and the Liberty ran out for warmups with their shirts inside out. When accepting her Eastern Conference Player of the Month award, Charles stood at center court of Madison Square Garden with a stoic face and no New York Liberty across her chest. These acts of disruption received mixed reactions, but players banded together and stood their ground.
Eventually, the fines were rescinded and the WNBA set a principle of supporting players’ rights to protest. Four years later, the WNBA serves as the blueprint of unity in adversity. This was so prominent in the 2020 Wubble season dedicated to Say Her Name and Breonna Taylor.
Say Her Name
After the death of Taylor, an essential worker shot by Louisville police officers while she was sleeping, the athletes of the WNBA dedicated their season to her and the countless others who were wrongfully killed. Players had the opportunity to opt out of the season, and three did, to dedicate their time to social justice. Natasha Cloud, Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery sacrificed their seasons. Those who reported to IMG’s campus in Bradenton, Fla., focused their efforts on raising awareness for the Say Her Name campaign.
Before their arrival WNBA All-Star and veteran Angel McCoughtry suggested each player wear “Breonna Taylor” on their backs as a reminder to the public and a demand for justice. “The pandemic, coupled with the injustices that were going on, it was a collective way for people who are part of being a team, who know how to fight for things and stand up and come together, they just did what they naturally had to do,” Chatman says.
On July 25, 2020, the Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon delivered a powerful speech. “We are dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor, an outstanding EMT who was murdered over 130 days ago in her home. … We are also dedicating this season to the Say Her Name campaign. A campaign committed to saying the names and fighting for justice for Black women. Black women who are so often forgotten in this fight for justice, who do not have people marching in the streets for them. We will say her name.” It solidified the standard for the WNBA’s being a voice for the voiceless.
Throughout the season, the Mystics’ Ariel Atkins spent each game day introducing the public to another Black woman whose life was taken at the hands of the police. Typically known as a fairly quiet person, Atkins’s voice sent an alarm to not only her teammates and the league, but also to the fans. It was a call that the world needs to do better by Black women.
In ’16, when the Minnesota Lynx decided to take it upon themselves to protest, Brunson says they “had to figure out what to do to reach people where they will be able to understand what [the Lynx] were trying to say” and that they had to “dig into how [they] could personalize what was happening.” The Mystics doubled down on bringing humanity to the situation by their jarring imagery on the night the Jacob Blake shooting news reached the Wubble.
A day of reflection
On Aug. 23, 2020, Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by the police in Kenosha, Wis. A few days later, on Aug. 26, the Mystics arrived to pregame with shirts that spelled out “Jacob Blake” on the front and had a very graphic bullet hole painted on the back. There was chatter among the players, deciding whether to play. These games were nationally televised, but Atkins made it a point to state on the ESPN broadcast, “This isn’t just about basketball.”
After more deliberation, the players came to the conclusion that it wasn’t in the best interest of their mission for social justice to play that night. WNBPA secretary and Atlanta Dream veteran Elizabeth Williams delivered a message, reflective of the union and the players’ point of view. “We … will continue this conversation [and] look to take collective action,” Williams said. “What we have seen over the last few months, and most recently with the brutal police shooting of Jacob Blake, is overwhelming. And while we hurt for Jacob and his community, we also have an opportunity to keep the focus on the issues and demand change. These moments are why it’s important for our fans to stay focused, hear our voices, know our hearts and connect the dots from what we say to what we do.”
Players then joined in a candlelight vigil later that night, under the leadership of WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike. It was decided this night would be followed by a day of reflection to recalibrate a larger plan of action to fight for racial and social justice and equality. The rest of the season, the players remained the model in unifying as a league and setting the standard of activism. In a league of 80% Black people, it’s deeply personal. “It’s just amazing the way they dealt with it,” Bevilaqua says. “It has been a positive for the WNBA and in the way that they handle [social justice matters], and the way that the fans have seen them handle that as well.”
Impacting the Senate
As the league continued to fight for social justice and publicly support Black Lives Matter, the Dream were put in a sticky situation with their then owner. Kelly Loeffler stated, on the record, her direct objection to Black Lives Matter, and wrote to WNBA leadership, strongly urging them to restrict the mentioning of the movement. In her pursuit of reelection to her Senate seat in Georgia, she iterated ideals that weren’t in alignment with the team’s. After research on her opposition, Rev. Raphael Warnock, the players in the Wubble began sporting “Vote Warnock” shirts. Their public display resulted in a $183,000, 3,500-donor increase to his campaign in only 48 hours. As time went on, players continued to rally around Warnock, which led to a Senate runoff against Loeffler, and Warnock won. Williams, whenever discussing the WNBA’s involvement, stresses the communication the players had with Warnock, as well as the research they pursued before taking a stance.
Collective bargaining agreements
The collective bargaining agreement is an indicator of the direction the WNBA is trying to go. The January 2020 document features increased pay, greater equity in revenue sharing, more accommodating travel plans and more assistance for family planning and parenthood. Team salary caps grew from $1 million to $1.3 million. The 30% increase allowed maximum salaries to nearly double. The maximum salary under the 2020 CBA is $215,000, with a possibility of $500,000 total including cash compensation, compared with $117,500, with a total of $130,000 including cash compensation. All players will now get individual rooms when traveling, whereas previously this was a luxury reserved for veteran players. For travel, players are guaranteed economy-plus or comfort-plus. Maternity leave is now guaranteed with full salary payout, as well as a $5,000 child-care stipend. The WNBA has also agreed to provide up to $60,000 for progressive family planning. The potential for revenue splitting also can reach up to 50-50 under this agreement. These are all steps in the right direction.
“I obviously give a lot of credit to the league for understanding the players and respecting that we aren't just these athletes that have no desire to stand for anything else, except the sport that you want us to stand for. That’s what sets us apart. And it's always been that way; I'd never see it changing.” —Rebekkah Brunson
Now that 25 years, jam-packed with memorable moments, are behind the WNBA, here are five moments to look forward to in the years to come.
Expansion is necessary, and it’s coming. “I don't think it's gonna be too far down the track, but expansion,” Bevilaqua says of her hopes for the next 25 years. Commissioner Cathy Englebert has alluded to ideas for expansion. “I think it should be at least 25 teams, and the roster should be at least 13 players. If not, where's the WNBA G League?” Peddy asks.
For the first time, the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility resulted in the unconstitutional announcement from the players of plans to declare for the draft. 57 players—with the exception of international ones—entered a draft pool that selects only 36 players. Though this number of draft-eligible players isn’t uncommon, it is the first time the public saw just how many were involved. Due to the heightened player salary in the newest CBA, it’s even proving to be a strain on teams to keep a roster of 12. Great talent is getting waived as a result and will be forced to go overseas to play or have to put a halt to their career altogether.
“I really want the league to continue to grow, for more people to watch it, for more people to have a true passion for it and not just watch it because they're forced to. And to expand. Maybe in 25 more years, we can have at least four to six more teams,” Penicheiro says. Viewership and consumption leads to revenue. Revenue leads to expansion.
The year 2020 was unprecedented. Live sports were questionable and inconsistent. Yet, through the hardships, the WNBA saw an increase in viewership. According to the WNBA, the ’20 full season (regular season and postseason) across all networks saw a 38% increase in average viewership compared with ’19 (with a 24% increase in unique viewership). The ’20 Finals was one of the most watched in history. The Storm’s Game 3, in their sweep of the Aces, was up 34% over ’19’s Finals Game 3, averaging 570,00 viewers. The Finals series also averaged 440,000 viewers, up 15% over ’19.
Viewership and exposure go hand in hand. ESPN Networks—ABC, ESPN, ESPN2—hosted 36 games, a 20-game increase over the previous year. CBS Television Network housed its first-ever WNBA regular-season game, and CBS Sports Network showed 39 games. NBA TV also showed 11 games. Nearly 90 games made available nationally on network directly increased viewership numbers. “Momentum is great. And I just want it to continue at the levels that will make it last, meaning TV and sponsorship dollars,” Chatman says.
If the product is available, people will consume it.
With the new merchandise available for purchase, the 50-50 revenue share potential of the CBA could really be to players’ benefit. The orange hoodie was a catalyst for this generation’s sporting of WNBA fashion. Merchandise sales were up 350% on the online store. “I hope to see generational wealth for players. That will make me incredibly happy,” Staley says of her hopes for the next 25 years. Each sale counts.
“Every young person that comes into the WNBA is a product of seeing professional basketball in the States. When you're seeing that, growing up, you work a little bit harder; you work a little bit smarter. Your imagination runs wild, because you've seen players do what you want to do, and it makes you a better player.” —Dawn Staley
On- and off-court wins
Now enters a generation of players who have never had to live without the WNBA. The next wave of players get to see A’ja Wilson, a reigning WNBA MVP and All-Star who has a statue of herself on the campus of her alma mater, the University of South Carolina. They bear witness to the greatness of Breanna Stewart, who, at 26 years old, has won every single award in basketball possible, including WNBA and Euroleague championships with the MVPs to match, and a record number of NCAA women’s basketball championships. The ones growing into the game also get the best of both worlds, intergenerationally, as players like Bird and Taurasi are still competing at a high level—and winning. They can watch Parker on Inside the NBA or Diggins-Smith on broadcast. They can attend a Wizards game and see Kristi Tolliver coaching. They can see these athletes be champions on and off the court.
Constantly evolving style of play
On the court, in particular, the game is growing. “When you put the work in, physically, and then you also put the work mentally, I mean, God, the sky’s the limit,” Hampton says. The skills and athleticism are improving. The exposure is increasing. There are resources to become the elite player you desire to be.
Here’s to limitless potential, WNBA. Here’s to continued growth. Here’s to a vision morphing into a staple. Here’s to 25 more years of expansion, growth, advocacy, respect and excellence. Here’s to forever existence. Here’s to impact. Here’s to 25 more years of “the WNBA is so important,” because it is.